Parashat Bo 5781
The prophet Yirmiyahu says of the Jews of his time:
יירמיהו פרק ה
(ג) יְקֹוָ֗ק עֵינֶיךָ֘ הֲל֣וֹא לֶאֱמוּנָה֒ הִכִּ֤יתָה אֹתָם֙ וְֽלֹא־חָ֔לוּ כִּלִּיתָ֕ם מֵאֲנ֖וּ קַ֣חַת מוּסָ֑ר חִזְּק֤וּ פְנֵיהֶם֙ מִסֶּ֔לַע מֵאֲנ֖וּ לָשֽׁוּב:
(ד) וַאֲנִ֣י אָמַ֔רְתִּי אַךְ־דַּלִּ֖ים הֵ֑ם נוֹאֲל֕וּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָדְעוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְקֹוָ֔ק מִשְׁפַּ֖ט אֱלֹהֵיהֶֽם:
(ה) אֵֽלֲכָה־לִּ֤י אֶל־הַגְּדֹלִים֙ וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אוֹתָ֔ם כִּ֣י הֵ֗מָּה יָדְעוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְקֹוָ֔ק מִשְׁפַּ֖ט אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם אַ֣ךְ הֵ֤מָּה יַחְדָּו֙ שָׁ֣בְרוּ עֹ֔ל נִתְּק֖וּ מוֹסֵרֽוֹת:
HaShem, are not Your Eyes truthful? You have struck them but they do not feel it, You have caused them to perish but they refuse to receive correction, they have made their faces harder than a rock and refuse to return. Therefore I said, surely these are poor, they are foolish, for they do not know the way of HaShem and the judgment of their God. So I will go to their gedolim and speak with them, for they should know the way of HaShem and the judgment of God, but they all together have broken the yoke and burst the bonds.
It’s a devastating indictment of the Jews of his time, who refused to see the consequences of their actions and change their behavior even as destruction was raining down upon them – and eerily applicable to too many in our time who profess to be Torah Jews. In the ongoing pandemic, too many communities that call themselves Torah communities continue to transgress and deny the most basic Torah mitzvot and the full weight of rabbinic tradition: “you shall live by [the mitzvot – and not die on account of them – Lev. 18:5; Yoma 85b, Sanhedrin 74a],” “guard yourselves carefully (Dt. 4:15),” “do not kill (Ex. 20:13),” do not harm others (Ex 21:24, Lev. 24:20). Not abiding by simple health guidelines to wear masks and maintain social distance, they are sickening and killing themselves and sickening and killing others, and yet they are not changing their behavior. They are being struck in greater numbers and not feeling it, perishing and refusing to receive correction. They have made themselves rock-faced and rock-headed, and throw rocks at those who try to help them. Yirmiyahu was a prophet, which means the message he transmits from HaShem is one that all generations of Jews must take to heart, because foolishness surfaces in different ways in different generations, and to recognize it and overcome it takes constant vigilance.
The pandemic has been going on for a year now, and the cause-and-effect process is pretty clear: those who don’t wear masks and cluster closely together have the highest rate of getting infected and spreading infection to others. And yet some of those leaders these wayward groups consider gedolim, their great ones, have irresponsibly encouraged transgressive behavior, and they cannot claim “our hands have not shed this blood (Dt. 21:7).“ Every custom they claim is essential to their lifestyle could be accomplished within the health guidelines if they made the effort, and nothing in Torah justifies, and everything in Torah condemns, the death and sickness, in some cases long-term sickness, they are spreading. Their transgressions are not accidental – they’re rooted in a misguided approach to Torah truth, a misguiding Torah education, and a lost contact with reality and the consequences of their actions, a whole culture that would require repair from the ground up – if they can wake up or be woken up.
The understanding of causality and consequences is a core theme of our parashah. The whole parade of plagues was, among other things, a teachable moment for the Israelites as well as the Egyptians. HaShem emphasizes that the plagues are not just natural calamities, they are also meaningful signs:
שמות פרק י פסוק ב
וּלְמַ֡עַן תְּסַפֵּר֩ בְּאָזְנֵ֨י בִנְךָ֜ וּבֶן־בִּנְךָ֗ אֵ֣ת אֲשֶׁ֤ר הִתְעַלַּ֙לְתִּי֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וְאֶת־אֹתֹתַ֖י אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֣מְתִּי בָ֑ם וִֽידַעְתֶּ֖ם כִּי־אֲנִ֥י יְקֹוָֽק:
So that you shall tell in the ears of your child and your grandchild how I have treated the Egyptians and My signs that I placed in them, and you shall know that I am HaShem.
Rabbi Yaakov Leiner of Iszbicz explains that for Paro and the Egyptians “after the punishment they understand the mistake they made.” But “the path of Israel is the opposite: that they understand before the action what would be the mistake.” He says that Paro only admits after he has been beaten and lost all his strength that what has occurred is according to God’s Will. But “Israel is different… they recognize HaShem, blessed be He, in every power they have… and feel immediately God’s Will, for they have extra understanding in the depth of their heart.” Just a warning from Torah is enough to direct Israel to the right course, and they see in the events around them the Hand of God. [Beit Yaakov, Bo, 17) During the plague of the firstborn the Jews don’t pretend they are magically protected by God. They are warned by HaShem to stay in lockdown until it passes and they comply completely. This is how true Jews behave.
In the Mishnah Avot (2:9), the great and wise Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asks his great students:
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ב
אמר להם צאו וראו איזוהי דרך ישרה שידבק בה האדם רבי אליעזר אומר עין טובה רבי יהושע אומר חבר טוב רבי יוסי אומר שכן טוב רבי שמעון אומר הרואה את הנולד רבי אלעזר אומר לב טוב
Go out and see what is the straight path to which a person should adhere. Rabbi Eliezer says “a generous eye.” Rabbi Yehoshua says “to be a good friend.” Rabbi Yosi says “to be a good neighbor.” Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says “to see the consequences [of our actions].” Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh says “To have a good heart.”
A time of crisis requires extra wisdom and insight. Each of these insights is valuable for us today. We all need to be more generous with each other. We need to be good friends to each other, and help each other especially in areas in which our friends need guidance and support. We need to be good neighbors, to care about our neighbors’ welfare and not harm each other. We need to understand the consequences of our actions and act responsibly. And we need good-hearted compassion for each other. May HaShem help us all to join together and rededicate ourselves to the true path of Torah.